Mechanisms and evolution of behavioural plasticity in solitary wasps

Theme: Biodiversity, Ecology & Conservation

Primary Supervisor:

Seirian Sumner

Genetics, Evolution and Environment, UCL

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Secondary Supervisor:

Elli Leadbeater

School of Biological Sciences, RHUL

Elli Leadbeater's Profile Picture

Project Description:

Despite appearances, 97% of hunting wasps don’t live in societies; they live alone. Yet, solitary wasps remain one of the most understudied taxa on the planet. This project will address outstanding, fundamental questions on the ecology and evolution of solitary wasps.

The life of a solitary wasp is rather monotonous and deceptively simple: a female builds a nest, lays an egg, provisions it, and then abandons it. Build, lay, feed, abandon; on repeat, 20-30 times during her short life span of 2-3 months. What regulates these behaviours? How does she ‘know’ the order of events? Does she make mistakes? If not, how not? How does she manage to locate and relocate to a new nesting site so many times without muddling her navigation pathways? Is it better to scatter offspring across isolated nests or group them together? Solitary wasps are also the springboard from which sociality evolved: knowing what and how the life cycles of solitary wasps are regulated, is a critical missing part of the puzzle in the long-standing question to explain how and why sociality evolved.

These questions matter for land management and conservation. Solitary wasps are specialist hunters of invertebrates, making them pivotal part of ecosystems as regulators of insect populations. Populations of solitary wasps are threatened, due to habitat loss; without a proper understanding of their ecology we are ill equipped to conserve these precious ecosystem services. Population genetic studies can reveal the fundamental characteristics of life history, including gene flow, dispersal, determining what sort of habitats support the more genetically diverse populations, and how habitat change influences population viability.

The student will have the opportunity to explore these questions using a wide range of approaches, such as behavioural ecology fieldwork, genomics, transcriptomics, population genetics and modelling.

Policy Impact of Research:

The project aims to focus on the only species of potter wasp Eumenes found in the UK. It is limited to the heathlands of Southern England, where it is locally abundant. We partner with the National Trust, and several landowners, to provide the fundamental science required by them to better manage their heathlands for the conservation of these wasps and the ecosystem the contribute to.

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